Tuesday, February 11, 2003

Don’t Try To Run: Pop Can Be Fun

I have to admit I have been listening to Shania’s new Up! album a lot lately. It sounds kind of funny to have to “admit” to listening to a certain CD, but I have often been denigrated for being a Shania fan.

Shania is a joke, her detractors say, manufactured by her producer/husband/string-puller Mutt Lange and mass-marketed by a greedy, soulless record company. The country purists hate her because she’s too pop and the anti-country crowd hates her because she’s country. There also seems to be another group who seem to think she HAS to suck because she is so impossibly beautiful.

Critics generally savage her as well. This one, asks the rhetorical question "Is Shania Twain Human?" Critics tend to lean toward suffering artiste types like Steve Earle, who they tell us have deep soul, originality and are brave and important.

Important. That damn word keeps popping up when I read about films, music and literature. This is the key ingredient in popular entertainment the critics tell us. The Clash were lauded not for their song writing, record-crafting, musicianship or vocal ability, but rather their attitude--their defiance to the Corporate Music Machine and more for what they weren’t than what they were.

With this perspective in mind, I have to say the new Sha Nay Nay record is not important, not at all, just damn good.

First off, let’s understand she is undertaking popular entertainment. If you care what was in Lou Reed’s bowel movement this morning, wait for his new record, he may let you know. If self-indulgence is your bag, then stick with the avant-garde where the artist is trying only to please themselves at that particular moment. In the avant-garde there is no concern whatsoever for the audience and what they will think or if the record will sell. It makes “success” much easier too when the artist can always say “Well, the record didn’t sell, but I wasn’t making a commercial record.” A nice crutch, that.

Shania is trying to sell records. She wants each and every song to have hit potential and there are 19 potential hits on this record. I, for one, appreciate that. To me, that means she is going to care if the song has any of the recognized attributes that make people like tunes: strong vocals, huge hooks you can’t help but hum, top notch musicianship, playful, breezy lyrics. Her and Mutt’s commitment to having a hit record ensure that each song is crafted with heaping amounts of each of these.

There is an idea floating out there that somehow it is cynical, manipulative and most importantly EASY to make a record with mass popular appeal like Shania’s Up! I tend to think the opposite is true. Making a record of what you hear in your head is much, much easier than making something other people will want in their heads.

I remember reading an article about critics darling Jeff Tweedy and his band Wilco who had just released a new record (Being There) that I was still trying to decide if I liked. He said in the piece that he basically hated the new record, thought it absolutely sucked and that it represented only what he wanted to do at that time. “Well screw you!” I thought to myself. “Why should I like it then?”

Is Up! perfect? No. I’d like a more country, less pop sound and the female empowerment stuff is somewhat tedious, but the melodies and hooks are just too perfect to deny...and she’s not telling me what a great, misunderstood person Johnny Bin Walker was.

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